Excerpt from "In The Mind of A Mountie" by T.M. 'Scotty' Gardiner

Chapter 83: Cockfighting -- An Uncommon Case

It may be that every community has its own idiosyncrasies. I was acutely aware while I was learning about a new community as a new Officer, that community was doing likewise with myself.

During my first months in Cape Breton the investigators began to alert me about fragments of information that indicated the sport of cockfighting was still active somewhere in the community. Cockfighting was an activity new to me as a policeman. The last I had heard of cockfighting was when as a boy growing up in Scotland it was rumoured by shepherds that the coal miners in the Cowdenbeath area of Fifeshire, some five miles north of where I was raised in Burntisland, engaged in the sport using fighting pits created by clearing heather on a local moor. Now the possibility in modern day Canada of an offence under sections 387 and 388 of the Criminal Code was intriguing.

As the months elapsed the investigators gathered fragmentary but increasingly accurate information. With indications some of the participating cocks, their owners and/or handlers came from the USA, the investigative plan solicited assistance from the Canadian Customs Border Crossing staff. In due course the Customs Staff gave the alert of an influx of cocks, documented in the disguise of domestic birds. The commonality of destinations given assisted the investigators to identify the venue for a fight as being in the New Waterford community, between Sydney and Glace Bay.

Following is an article I prepared in 1969 for the RCM Police publication The Quarterly, under the title Cockfighting, a Savage Sport.

It is historically recorded that about the period 514--449 B.C., the Greek military leader Themistocles, while with his army and en route to war against the Persians, saw two cocks fighting. Inspired by what he saw, Themistocles stopped his troops and all watched with admiration the valour and obstinacy of the feathered warriors. In honour of the ensuing victory of the Greeks, cockfights became an annual event in Athens. The original connotation was towards a patriotic and religious spirit, but thereafter cockfights were held for the pure love of the sport.

Even prior to Themistocles' introduction to cockfighting, the sport was popular in Indo-China, Persia and other eastern countries. From Athens the sport spread throughout Greece, Asia Minor and Sicily. For many years the Romans despised this 'Greek diversion' but eventually they adopted it enthusiastically. Spreading northwards from Rome, cockfighting was probably introduced into England before Caesar's time. Attempts by the Clergy of the Christian Church and Cromwell to ban it failed and its acceptance throughout the British Isles, the Philippines and the New World followed.

In cockfighting, a pair or a 'set' of several cocks is matched against an equal number of equal-weight opponents. The cocks are a special breed and they may be exercised and given special feeding to increase muscle development. The comb and wattles are pared from the head to lessen the opponent's target and sharp steel spurs approximately two inches long are affixed to inflict greater damage. Held in a 'pit' which is a roughly 15 to 20 feet in diameter, circular-shaped area surrounded by a barrier, the fight continues until the death or disability of the opponent.

Some of London's better known pits were those at Westminster, Drury Lane, Jeurn St. and Birdcage Walk. Wagering was high, confirmed by the 5,000 guineas staked in probably the most famous 'main' (a series of cockfights) between the victorious Joseph Gilliver who was the most celebrated breeder of his day and the Earl of Derby in 1830. Great Britain banned the sport by law in 1849 and ultimately the sport became expressly prohibited in Canada. Among the records however, we find the names of Henry VIII, James I, Charles II, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as being devotees of this sport.

Recognizing this global background it was with considerable interest that fragments of information about the existence of periodic cockfights were recorded by the RCMP New Waterford Detachment of Sydney Sub-division in Nova Scotia. The investigation, spanning a period of months, terminated on the evening of 5 April 1969 when RCMP personnel surrounded a somewhat insignificant-looking barn in the New Waterford district. Upon forcing entry, RCMP members found the two operators, 45 onlookers, a two-cock fight in progress, 62 live caged cocks and six dead cocks -- victims of this savage sport. Found also was a variety of cockfighting accoutrements, scales, steel spurs, numbered leg bands, entry and betting sheets.

Pleading guilty to allowing a cockfight on the premises (Sec. 388(1) Criminal Code), the two operators were each fined $25.00 and costs; pleading guilty to attending and encouraging the fighting of birds (Sec. 387(1)(d) Criminal Code), 40 participants were each fined $20.00 and costs. The five other participants, being juveniles, were not prosecuted. All cocks were destroyed in accordance with Section 388(2) Criminal Code.

I would hesitate to draw many comparisons between the cities of Athens, Rome and London with the Cape Breton Island community of New Waterford. Nonetheless, in the realm of cockfighting arenas their equality must be recognized.

Legal requirements were (are) that upon seizure the cocks must be seen by a Justice of the Peace who will declare them to be 'fighting' cocks or otherwise. If the former, destruction is ordered forthwith. From the Saturday night seizure to the Sunday morning the cocks were caged in the New Waterford Detachment garage. There they awaited the arrival of the Justice of the Peace -- and their doom. With our case the Justice of the Peace declared all 62 cocks were 'fighting' birds. From a point of nature they were truly magnificent. Bred for the fight, they were large, broad-chested, with plumage that glowed, amazingly erect, alert and with a spirited, confident stature. Even the look in their eye was commanding. But the law had been written. At about mid-morning on that Sunday I ordered the immediate destruction of all 62 birds.

By early that Sunday afternoon my residence phone started to ring. It rang many times. The callers all had the same message. In a variety of salty but clear language they made it obvious my 'Westerner' upbringing had failed me totally -- did I not know that the hackle (back of head and neck) feathers of a fighting cock were the envy, indeed the ultimate, prized source of feathers for fly-tying fishermen?

I could only explain my ignorance of this fact. I did, albeit belatedly, try to meet their request to know where the severed heads of the birds could be found.

"Try the New Waterford nuisance ground," was all I could advise, although the investigators had already engaged a bulldozer to bury all remains.

With the full array of cock-fighting paraphernalia that was seized, I wrote to the Director of the RCMP Museum suggesting this would make a most interesting display -- and possibly be the last such cockfighting seizure Canada would experience. My suggestion was rejected -- the museum's interests were, I was told, in 'old, aged artefacts.' I was disappointed by what I saw was very short-sightedness. Had not every article in every museum one day been new? I did not succeed. But maybe Cpl. Bud Abel, NCO In-charge New Waterford Detachment in the 1969 period, found a source interested in preserving that unique seizure! My hope is he did.

Ah yes, those good-hearted fly-tying fishermen in Cape Breton forgave me.

Note: It turns out that this was not the last cockfight in Canada. The Victoria, B.C. Times Colonist newspaper of Feb. 29, 2008 carried an article describing the successful investigation of what was termed 'the largest cockfighting ring in Canadian history.' The article explains cockfighting operations were successfully investigated in 1998 and 2001 at a location in Burnaby, B.C.


Copyright 2010, T.M. Gardiner

Read an excerpt: Chapter 114: The Vessel Samarkanda.

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